Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Lent
March 25, 2001
St. Agnes Church, Cincinnati
"Give God the praise! We know this man is a sinner."
"Give God the praise was the common expression in Jesus' time when someone was being called to tell the truth. Sort of like, "Come on, what's really going on?"
The readings in today's liturgy are all about the tension between appearance and reality, and the gradual process Jesus, the light of the world, uses to teach us how to grow in the light, in the truth.
In the first reading we meet Samuel at a time when his hopes have been disappointed. He had believed that Saul would be the great king to lead the people, but Saul had abandoned the covenant and been rejected by God. Now Samuel is selected to find and anoint the one God will show him. But he's warned that appearances will deceive, that God's way of seeing is different from ours. It's a bit ironic, because when David appears he really is an impressive figure. In today's world he'd probably be referred to as a hunk. (Apparently, if looks are not the real test, at least they're not an obstacle in themselves.) The key point, of course, is that God looks into the heart.
And then in John's Gospel we are treated to a real Perry Mason court-room scene, aren't we?
It's all about who Jesus really is -- the light of the world -- and how he will enlighten us. But there is a lot to be learned by identifying with the other characters in the story, too.
First there are the forces of darkness. The figures of power who control the religious interpretation of events for the ordinary people. We've heard about the Pharisees for so long and put them in the category of 'the bad guys' for killing Jesus that we forget that they were the leaders, the teachers who guided the conscience of the little people. And here they are, saying "We know this man is a sinner." That's powerful stuff, enough to make the ordinary citizen stifle any contrary impressions and be quiet.
"We know this man is a sinner?" Indeed?
Then there is the man himself. This is no ordinary blind man having his sight restored by Jesus. John goes out of his way to tell us this man was blind from birth. This man has never seen anything in his whole life. He has been totally dependent on others to put him in touch with what was happening right around him.
The disciples represent the common belief of Jews in Jesus' day. If there was some sort of blemish or defect in someone, it must be the result of some sin. Someone must have sinned to make him blind. Jesus has to challenge that prevailing belief and push them to shift their point of view. That's not what this is all about, there are bigger things at stake here.
As for the man himself, we watch in fascination how his awareness grows. When they first ask him about what happened, he can only attribute it to "that man called Jesus." He doesn't know anything except a name people talk about. When they ask where he is, he says very simply and directly, "I don't know." He knows only what happened to him. He knows his experience -- and no one will tell him that didn't happen. When they ask what he thinks, he offers a simple "he's a prophet." And a bit later he can build the argument that "he's of God."
The powers of darkness are being foiled at every step. The real miracle isn't the cure of his blindness but what is taking place in the heart of the man born blind: he is being gradually empowered to trust his religious experience in the face of their opposition. We know from the comments about his parents what that meant. They were afraid to speak up because it was known that if you did you would be cast out of the synagogue -- which is what eventually happened to the man born blind. Their rage against Jesus is growing. But he can stand firm in his experience. He may not 'know' anything beyond that but he does know what happened to him.
Later when Jesus contacts him he asks "Do you believe in the Son of Man?" Again the man doesn't know enough to answer. Who's that, sir? And Jesus gives him the same answer he gave to the Samaritan woman at the well: the one you're talking to right now. "Yes, Lord, I believe." His growth in faith is complete.
In a few minutes the catechumens and candidates for full communion in the church, who are moving toward their Baptism on Holy Saturday, will come forward for a next step in their journey. They will receive the Lord's prayer. And we all need to receive it again and treasure a gift we take too much for granted. Jesus, the light of the world, is revealing that our God is not the protector of some purity code and magic rituals (like the way the leaders interpret the Sabbath, telling Jesus he can't heal on that day). No, God is our Father. What an incredible revelation!
Let me connect all this with something happening right in our day.
You may have heard about the 10-year-old girl who has celiac disorder. Because of this disease if she swallows even the smallest speck of wheat products she can go into violent seizures and possibly die. As a result she can't receive Eucharist under the species of bread. Her parents have asked that in this case a small rice wafer might be consecrated so she could receive under both species (much as alcoholic priests are permitted to use grape juice instead of wine). In response the Vatican concluded that she may not. She can receive under the form of wine and know that she has really received Eucharist. The sad result is that he parents have left the church and joined a Methodist church.
Interestingly, in the letters to the editor of the National Catholic Reporter, some of the respondents said they have such a situation in their parish and they simply allow the rice bread no matter what authorities say. They tryst their religious judgment in on contrast to those who know.
I suspect a lot of us in our congregation would agree with them. It seems to fit the response to the question "What Would Jesus Do?"
It may not be all that simple.
The story in the Gospel has a hard ending. Jesus tells the Pharisees if they were only blind they'd be OK. It's because they say they see -- are unwilling to learn, to be taught -- that Jesus leaves them in their sin.
So our liturgy places us before a choice: we can acknowledge our blindness and let Jesus lead us to where we can finally acknowledge "I believe, Lord" -- which might take a lifetime. Or we can be so sure of the rules that we can claim to know -- and continue in our blindness.
I know what my feelings and leanings tell me is the right response to the young girl. But if I claim to know that the authorities are wrong, I might just be as guilty as the pharisees.
We have a choice. To walk by faith or to blindly claim to know. In Communion let's ask the Lord, the Light of the World, to take over.